Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Since breaking into the business as a teenager in the mid-’90s, Ethan Suplee’s cultivated a remarkably diverse career. After stepping toe-to-toe with Cory Matthews and Shawn Hunter as lovable lug Frankie Stechino on Boy Meets World, Suplee found an artistic home in Kevin Smith’s View Askew universe. His career took on added texture after memorable supporting turns in American History X and Blow, leading Suplee to work with visionary directors like Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain), Anthony Minghella (Cold Mountain), and Martin Scorsese (The Wolf Of Wall Street). Suplee wrapped up four seasons of My Name Is Earl in 2009, and since then has continued to work steadily in film and TV, with his latest, Peter Berg’s based-on-recent events action drama Deepwater Horizon, opening this weekend.
The A.V. Club: What was it like playing a real person who was involved in such a tragedy? How does that affect your process?
Ethan Suplee: Trying to think back, the character I played in Remember The Titans was also a real person—Louie Lastik—but I had never met him and he hadn’t passed away and hadn’t passed away in a way like we were shooting here, so there was no emotional weight connected to him. But a group of family members of people who lost their lives on the Deepwater Horizon came to set a few times and Jason Anderson’s wife was one of them and we would talk about what a great husband and father he was, and what a great person he was, and that certainly made me feel like I had a bigger stake in portraying this guy. It was actually pretty emotional for me. I wouldn’t say that it changed what was I doing, because I didn’t meet her before we started shooting. But it certainly made me feel like I had a deeper connection and I had more responsibility there.
AVC: What’s it like recreating an event that was on the news just a few years ago? Were you following the story back then?
ES: Yes, definitely, I remember when it happened. It was intense. I mean, we had proper explosions on set and they were controlled and I never felt at risk but it was the most intense thing I’ve ever shot in that way, being blasted with fireballs and mud and saltwater. And at the same time you’re having to deal with, like, the politics that go into these deepwater drills. You know, there’s multiple companies involved and there’s basically contractors who know how to operate this machinery that have nothing really to do with the well once it’s done. So, yeah, it was very interesting.
AVC: How familiar did you become with the duties of working on an oil rig? Did you have to study the day-to-day job requirements?
ES: Yeah, we had a bunch of guys on set who were roughnecks and oil rig guys and drillers and that’s what they did. So every single thing that we had to do in the movie we would run by them and get an explanation of exactly what it was we were doing and what the potential consequences for each thing were and how they worked. And, you know, what life is like on one of those rigs and what life is like off one of those rigs and how it is to find yourself there. It’s a really, really fascinating world.
AVC: Do they sleep on there for months at a time or do they leave every day?
ES: I believe it’s like three weeks, and yeah, they would do 12 hours on, 12 hours off. As far as I can remember it was three weeks at a time, 28 days at a time, something like that. You go out on a helicopter or out on a boat and you just be there, that’s where you live. Because there’s two shifts, the daytime and nighttime shift, you kind of don’t even know [the other drillers]. You could be sharing a room with someone you don’t ever see because when you’re at work he’s asleep in your room and when you’re asleep in your room he’s at work and you, like, pass them in the hall and won’t even know that’s the dude you’re sharing a room with.
AVC: How did you get involved? Was it an audition or did they reach out to you?
ES: It was an audition. The audition was strange because there’s a lot of stuff I have to do in the movie where I’m kind of reacting to big things that are occurring. That’s always really strange to do when nothing is happening. So you’re standing in front of, like, a gray wall and you’re talking about this machine that is not doing what it’s supposed to be doing and the stakes are very, very high at that point so with that kind of thing it’s always a little bit strange. But the casting director was amazing and picked the scenes that had the least amount of action in them, the ones where you’re discussing what it’s like to be on the drill and the actions you’re being asked to perform.
AVC: It seems like it’s a movie that’s really based around the ensemble of the crew. Would you say it’s a character-based film, or do you think it has something more to say about our current cultural or political climate?
ES: I’m sure that there will be those angles read into it, but really it’s to honor the people that lost their lives. The mess that was created after that disaster is also certainly touched upon, because that’s also a major tragedy. But really it is, I think, about the men and women who were on that rig and went through that experience. Or didn’t make it off the rig.
AVC: Was your first onscreen appearance ever on an episode of Tales From The Crypt?
ES: That was after I did my first episode of Boy Meets World, but it was very, very soon after that. The first proper job I ever had was a television show called Boy Meets World, and I think that that year I also did Tales From The Crypt.
AVC: How did you get involved with Boy Meets World?
ES: I think that was like my second audition. I went and auditioned for Melrose Place, and when I left they called and said, “We want you to do it,” and then they found out I wasn’t a member of SAG and said, “We don’t want you to do it.” And then, the next day, I went to audition for Boy Meets World in the morning and by the afternoon I was at work.
AVC: You started acting that day?
ES: Pretty much, yeah.
AVC: Were they planning on you and Joey The Rat sticking around for as long as you did? Because you guys had a really good run.
ES: Yeah, we did a lot of episodes. I don’t know, they never said that, you know, on the first day, but then by the end of the first day they were talking about, “Hey, can you come back next week?” And then we were just sort of there a lot. I don’t remember during the audition or prior to the audition hearing you’re gonna be doing a bunch of these if you get it.
AVC: Did you and your crew form a pretty strong bond?
ES: Yeah, me and Blake became pretty tight.
AVC: Have your kids watched any episodes of Boy Meets World? Or Girl Meets World?
ES: They definitely have seen Boy Meets World, because that show has never been off the air as far as I know. I think it’s still rerunning on some crazy channel somewhere. Girl Meets World? I don’t know if they’ve seen that, but I know for sure they’ve seen Boy Meets World.
AVC: And what do they think of your character?
ES: They just think I’m a weirdo.
AVC: So you got the Tales From The Crypt job right after that. Was that cool for you? Were you a horror fan at all?
ES: I was a fan of The Twilight Zone and Amazing Stories and shows like that. I wasn’t really a horror fan but I liked Tales From The Crypt because it had a similar vibe to some Twilight Zone episodes and some Amazing Stories.
AVC: What got you on the path to acting? Your parents were on Broadway, right?
ES: My mother was. My father went to college for drama in Pittsburgh, and so did my mother, and then my mother was a steadily working New York theater actress. They kind of quit when I was born. They did that for, like, 10 years before they had kids and then I was born and they were not into that lifestyle for kids.
We moved from New York to L.A. to do other things that had nothing to do with acting. But as a child, my cat’s names were Stanley and Stella and it was all we talked about. My mom would read me plays so I was familiar with that side of it.
AVC: So then you started taking classes in L.A.?
ES: Yeah, they weren’t really interested in me doing it as a kid, but it was kind of like when you’re an adult you can do whatever you want and I decided I was an adult a little bit before I was actually an adult. I quit school and, you know, decided to be an actor.
AVC: And it wasn’t too long after that that you got your first film role in Mallrats?
ES: Yeah, that was like a year after I started Boy Meets World.
AVC: I heard Mallrats was an intense audition process for a lot of people.
ES: It was crazy. Honestly, the worst of it wasn’t that bad for me, but I think I went in like three or four times and there was—I think his name was Don Phillips—he would have these pizza parties. There was talk that this was what he did for Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Dazed And Confused—basically, they would take the top three choices for each role and tell you you’re going to spend all day Saturday at the casting director’s office and just mix and match until we find the right combination of people.
So when we got there in the morning they announced that the only role that was cast was mine and that I was the guy, which was like the craziest, biggest release. The producer [Scott Mosier] had played my role in Clerks, and he was there, and he didn’t want to be an actor. He was, like, “Please do this, I don’t wanna do it.”
AVC: I was going to ask you if Willam from Clerks and Willam from Mallrats were, within that universe, the same character.
ES: They are. They are the same dude.
AVC: I’m curious what the vibe on set was like. Kevin Smith had all this success with Clerks, and Mallrats was his first foray into studio filmmaking. Was there any tension on set, with the stakes being so high? Was Kevin nervous?
ES: No, none of that. No tension at all. From my point of view—and you’ve got to remember I’m an 18-year old guy at that point who’d never done a movie before—it was just fun. We weren’t fucking off and not working, but I’ve seen a lot worse tension and stress and, like, the desperation to make your day and getting behind. But there was none of that. It was like, you show up, you run through it, they set up shots, we do it, we’re laughing offscreen a lot, we’re having fun, everybody’s having fun. We had a whole mall—basically 90 percent of it had gone out of business. It was bizarre. We had this gigantic, empty soundstage basically. Our dressing rooms were shops in this mall. And then we’d walk out one shop door and walk down the hall and shoot a scene. It was pretty cool.
AVC: There were a lot of cuts made. There’s that whole subplot where people think T.S. tried to assassinate the governor, and then all of that ended up being cut. Did any of that affect your character?
ES: I don’t think any of it affected me. I hadn’t actually thought about that until you brought it up just now, but there was that whole big thing in the beginning that made it a lot edgier, but I guess they were trying to make it more mainstream of something like that.
It’s gotta be tricky. I think about the period of, like, the ’70s and early ’80s where nobody had money to make big movies and there was no CGI or anything like that and people had to get super creative. And then, you know, when you’ve got somebody who can paint you any picture on a computer and you get hundreds of millions of dollars to make a movie, its almost like the creativity diminishes somewhat. Kevin will say that he spends upwards of $200,000 on [Clerks], but just the filming of it was just $40 grand or something like that. When you have only $40 grand, you’ve got to be super creative. To go from $40 grand to $5 or $6 million [like on Mallrats] is almost the same kind of jump—so you have the studio going like, “Well, this is a mall movie, this is not, you know, you can’t talk about all the shit you talked about in Clerks. We have to make it friendly for people at the mall.
ES: I still like that movie a lot, though.
AVC: I could never see those 3-D images. Was there actually a sailboat there and could you see it?
ES: I am able to see those. I purposely tried not to see that one, so I don’t know if it was a boat or what it was, but I could’ve seen it very easily had I wanted to.
AVC: Do you look back fondly on that movie because of the relationships you formed? You acted in several more of Kevin Smith’s movies and obviously you and Jason Lee maintained a long friendship. Do you think that colors your fondness for it?
ES: Yeah, I love those guys. Kevin is amazing, Jason is amazing, Scott Mosier’s a great guy. And it was my first movie, I was a baby back then. My kid is older than I was when I shot that movie.
ES: Yeah, totally. In between Mallrats and Chasing Amy there was a version of Chasing Amy that he had written where it was set in high school and he wanted me to be the lead character. I think that was before Mallrats actually came out, and after Mallrats came out and was not successful a lot of the money dried up and he had to rework the entire script. Then it became what it is and was a huge success so maybe it’s lucky for him it worked out that way. But, yeah, Kevin’s a super loyal guy. Everything he’s asked me to do I’ve done and happily done. I think he likes to have people around that he knows he’s comfortable with.
AVC: Was it through the View Askew universe that you got involved with Vulgar?
ES: Yeah, I met Bryan [Johnson, the director] on set of Mallrats. I can’t remember what he was doing there, but he had a job on the crew.
AVC: Isn’t he also Steve-Dave in Mallrats?
ES: Yeah! That’s Bryan.
AVC: Was Vulgar something he approached you about? It seems like it was a passion project for him.
ES: Yeah, we became friends on Mallrats and he told me he was writing a script. There were a few guys who were friends with Kevin and then made movies. There was Bryan and then there was this guy Malcolm Ingram who worked for Film Threat magazine and he directed a movie for View Askew called Drawing Flies. Brian Lynch, who’s written every kid’s movie you’ve seen nowadays, he did one. That was all Kevin encouraging his friends to be creative and saying, “You can have this outlet.”
AVC: Early in your career, it seems like you were always bouncing between lighter and heavier material. In American History X, your character is an unabashed neo-Nazi. What was that like for you, considering most people knew you from Boy Meets World and Mallrats?
ES: That was a heavy one to shoot. Honestly, while we were shooting, I didn’t really gauge the severity of what we were doing. There were a few times I would come off the set and maybe be too lazy to have makeup remove my tattoos or just wanna go home and I smoked at the time so I’d stop for cigarettes and be in, like, lines at the liquor store and not really realize what people were reacting to. And I’d have to look at myself again and be like, oh yeah, this is gross, this guy I’m playing.
I tried to make him human, too, but I think Seth really is a cartoon character of a person.
AVC: I read that you and Edward Furlong did improvisation in character. Is that true? If so, what was it like improvising hate speech?
ES: Tony Kaye was super-big on improvisation. There were days when we would see on the call sheet what set we were working on with no scene numbers attached to it. We would show up and he would just say, “Okay, go, this scene is you two guys,” and we would be like, “Oh, okay.” You know, it almost becomes just a competition of who can say the grossest thing. But then you also have to remember that this has to go in a movie and it has to make sense and there has to be a narrative. We have to be forwarding the story somehow. It couldn’t only just be vulgarities. It had to have some purpose.
There is some stuff in the movie that was just Tony Kaye putting a camera on his shoulder and saying, “Let’s shoot something,” with literally no more discussion than that.
AVC: Was getting this gig a result of your friendship with Jason Lee?
ES: No, I think that was just a magical happenstance. I didn’t know Jason was attached to that when I read the script. I hadn’t done TV since Boy Meets World at that point. My wife was pregnant and I wanted to do TV because that would mean staying in Los Angeles for the majority of the year rather than being out of Los Angeles for the majority of the year. And that was a script where I just kept laughing out loud, truly laughing out loud. I went in and met with Greg [Garcia, creator] and he said he wanted me in it based on the commentaries from Without A Paddle. I don’t know how true that is, but that’s what he claims.
AVC: What did he respond to in your commentary?
ES: Well, there was a scene in Without A Paddle that I got into a big argument with the director about. It’s kind of toward the end of the movie. Me and [co-star] Abraham Benrubi are walking these guys off a cliff with guns pointed at them. My point of view was, look, these guys have gone through hell trying to catch them, and I’m feeling like, let’s just let them go. They won. They beat us so many times. I’m having second thoughts on killing them at this point. And the director was like, “Point your fucking gun at them!” And I was saying, like, “I really don’t want to.” I’m saying maybe I’m the voice of reason, even if I don’t say anything. I’m not trying to make up a new scene, I just don’t feel good about it.
And so then if you watch the scene you can kind of see what I’m talking about. It might look completely absurd not knowing what it is, with two guys walking guys down with guns and one of them’s just not into it at all. And I dunno, something about that Greg responded to and that’s something we talked about in our first meeting. It’s kind of like, “I’m asking for somebody to be in a pain in the ass.” Which is what I think he was looking for: an actor to be a pain in the ass.
AVC: You acted in Don’s Plum, the improvisational movie Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire tried to prevent from being released. Earlier this year, it made headlines when the director put it online. You’ve previously described it as “just so wrong.” What did you take away from that project?
ES: Basically, the brass tacks of that are a bunch of friends decide to make a short film. And then once the short film is shot, some other people come to the people who directed and produced it and say, “Hey, you know you have these actors in it. If we just film another hour’s worth of stuff we can have a feature film and it’ll get released for sure because these two guys are really hot right now.” And kind of without telling one of them they went and did that and then somebody was like, “Hey you can’t do that, we were making a short which [wasn’t supposed] to be screened in theaters outside of, like, Sundance.” So in that sense it is wrong.
Everybody’s got a point of view and everybody’s got a side and I’m sure it’s not as clear cut—that’s how it went down for me and my point of view. You know, I don’t think it’s some big artistic thing [with] the greatest performances ever. It’s a silly, fun improvised short film and there’s an extra hour of shoe leather that’s attached to it to make it a feature.
AVC: I know you probably can’t say much about it, but I’d remiss if I didn’t ask. I see you’re involved in the new season of Twin Peaks.
ES: First of all, I don’t know that I am involved in the new Twin Peaks. Number one. Number two, I am a huge fan of the show. The pilot and the first episode are two of my favorite things that have ever been filmed. The series overall got a little—I don’t know if “messy” is the right word, [but] I watched it all more than one time. The pilot and the first episode are, like, my favorite pieces of television maybe ever. And I would be an extra in anything David Lynch ever shot, happily.
AVC: When you say you’re not sure, does that mean that you filmed some stuff and you’re not sure if it’s actually going to make it onscreen? Or have you not filmed anything yet?
ES: [Laughs.] I’m just not sure about any of it.